At some point, every presidential candidate is bound to take a trip abroad to advertise his foreign policy credentials. Because most candidates don't want to be accused of criticizing his opponent's foreign policy abroad, the trips are usually little more than carefully staged photo ops.
Four years ago, during his "foreign policy" trip, Barack Obama donned a skullcap and pushed a written prayer into a nook in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He hasn't been back to Israel since, and his enmity toward our only Middle Eastern ally has been demonstrated so often, there is no room here to rehash the evidence.
Mitt Romney's trip this week was supposed to follow the normal script. Off to London first for the opening of the Olympics, then to Israel and last to Poland, the trip was planned to hit the headlines and Obama's vulnerabilities. The U.K. is a strong ally, Israel is another (and of greater domestic political importance), and Poland is another that -- until Obama came along -- held a special regard for us. Poland practically worships Ronald Reagan for his role in winning the Cold War and embracing Poland's struggle against Soviet oppression. And many Polish-Americans -- who may comprise the swing vote in several states -- are worried about Obama's disregard of Poland's defense.
Britain, as one wag wrote a few days ago, is an easy date for American pols. All a guy has to do is say something nice about the Queen or Churchill, josh them about the lousy weather and say something warm and serious about the "special relationship." At that point, the Brits conclude that the American candidate is perhaps too unlettered or too much of a cowboy, but all in all a good chap. Then everyone smiles as the candidate climbs back on the aircraft to go to the next stop.
Unfortunately for Romney, his London trip was more reminiscent of Monday Night Football's "C'mon, man" segment. You know the one: part of the halftime show with a half dozen video clips of players, refs or coaches screwing up big plays to Chris Berman's cry of "c'mon, man." Some reporter asked Romney whether Britain was ready for the Olympics to start. Instead of saying, "everything looks smashing," Romney said, "You know, it's hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting. The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials … that obviously is not something which is encouraging."
That peeved Brit PM David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson who both made snide responses and launched Romney into two days of damage control. Romney's unforced error is inexplicable. But it will be forgotten quickly after Romney's superb speech yesterday in Jerusalem.
Romney arrived in Israel about two weeks after Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reportedly went there to advise Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu privately about America's contingency plans for Iran if the economic sanctions didn't succeed in stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program. (The Israeli government denied that report.)
The Israelis had no reason to believe anything Donilon told them. Obama has done and continues to do everything in his power to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. Though Obama has given the appearance of going along with congressionally authored economic sanctions against Iran, he has defanged the Iran sanctions, granting most of Iran's trading partners in Europe and the Far East exemptions from them. When the Iranians revolted against the Tehran regime in 2009, Obama did nothing to help them. He will never use military power to prevent Iran's achieving its nuclear weapons ambitions, and everyone -- especially the Israelis -- knows that.
In that context, Romney has given two excellent foreign policy speeches. The first, before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on July 24, and then in Jerusalem yesterday.
In his VFW speech, Romney labeled Iran as the greatest national security threat we face. And he said, "The President's policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in seventy years… exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify… compromised our national-security secrets… and in dealings with other nations, given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due."
Introduced by the mayor of Jerusalem, Romney began by emphasizing that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
Romney again hit Iran hard. Speaking of Iran's threats to wipe Israel off the map, he reminded the crowd of the late Menachem Begin's words that when a nation threatens Israel it should be taken at its word and said that preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons should be America's highest national security priority. He said that we must not delude ourselves into believing that a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained, and that it is right for Israel to defend itself and for America to stand with Israel when it does so.
Romney's speech will be criticized as an embrace of neoconservatism, but it was not that at all. When he said, "We have a duty to speed and to shape history" he was not calling for the imposition of democracy in the Middle East. He was saying, clearly, that Israeli democracy had to be defended against the growing threats that surround it. He called upon the international community to pressure Egypt's new Islamist government to honor the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords negotiated by Anwar Sadat. Importantly, he said that the US-Israeli alliance was not only a strategic one, but also a force for good in the world.
Romney's performance in Israel was a superb defense of freedom and American principles. It set the stage for his visit to Poland.
The Poles, like the Brits, are an easy date for Romney, but not for our current president. Poland was promised a ground-based missile defense system by George W. Bush to defend it against Iranian -- and implicitly Russian -- missile attack. Obama reneged on that promise and instead promised a sea-based system, which our navy lacks sufficient missile ships to provide.
In his VFW speech, Romney previewed what he should say in Poland. Referring to the missile defense issue, he told the VFW that Obama's policy toward Eastern Europe "…began with the sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech Republic. They had courageously agreed to provide sites for our antimissile systems, only to be told, at the last hour, that the agreement was off," Romney said. "As part of the so-called reset in policy, missile defenses were sacrificed as a unilateral concession to the Russian government," Romney added. "If that gesture was designed to inspire good will from Russia, it clearly missed the mark."
Romney can hit as big a home run in Poland as he did in Israel with a few simple acts. He should visit the statue of Ronald Reagan in Warsaw and there quote the words of Lech Walesa at the statue's dedication in 2011. Walesa said, "I wonder whether today's Poland, Europe and world could look the same without President Reagan. As a participant in those events, I must say that it's inconceivable."
Romney needn't promise, today, that Bush's promise will be kept. He should save that for a speech at home. He can, and should, repeat the theme he followed in the VFW speech and in Israel. America will defend the freedom of its allies when they are threatened, he should say, and Poland's freedom is as important to America now as when Ronald Reagan fought for it by standing with Walesa.
If Romney does these things, he will come home from the trip a winner. In Israel, and in Poland, he will have demonstrated a strength that hasn't been evident before. When he gets back, he'll have to face the economic crisis, liberal calls for more gun control, and everything else that will come up in the campaign. But he will be better able to do so for having demonstrated his understanding that the world is a dangerous place and that America -- and Israel, Poland, England, and our other allies -- can pursue our mutual duty to speed and shape history in the cause of freedom.